Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Neighborhoods Under Stress

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

This is a story about change in the city, but it begins with a disclaimer.

Taken as a whole, Philadelphia did not change much in the first decade of the new century, at least as measured by statistics.

A look at the city's vital signs shows only slight movement, up or down, on most key indicators. On the plus side, the population of the city appears to have risen slightly, reversing a trend of the last 50 years. Crime is down; the value of people's homes rose, though the housing market took a beating during the recession.

On the other side, the city continues to lose jobs (minus 47,000 since 2000) and the income of many Philadelphia residents did not keep pace with inflation. With the recession, the jobless rate rose into double digits.

This helicopter view of the city can be misleading.

Significant changes happened in a number of neighborhoods in the last 10 years.

Sometimes they are visible at street level: signs of renewal along Frankford Avenue in Kensington; more abandoned houses along Germantown Avenue in Nicetown; empty storefronts along stretches of Stenton Avenue in the city's northwest.

Nicetown.jpgBut, the eyes can deceive or tell only a piece of the story. Fortunately, we have other tools available to dig down.

The Census Bureau's American Community Survey is an annual sampling of households that collects a wide range of economic and demographic data. This sampling used to be done only as part of the decennial census, but no more. Now, each year the Census Bureau sends long-form questionnaires to three million American households.

After five years of sampling, the Census Bureau is able to release data at the census tract level. The ACS data for Philadelphia's 380 census tracts were released last year. It covers the period between 2005 and 2009. (Go here for a brief explanation of the ACS.)

At Metropolis, we used ACS data to take a closer look at Philadelphia's neighborhoods and asked this question: Which neighborhoods have changed the most in the last 10 years? For better or for worse.

We didn't measure one neighborhood against the other -- it would be ridiculous to compare Chestnut Hill, the city's wealthiest neighborhood with Fairhill, its poorest. Geographically, they are both in the same city. Statistically, they are on different planets.

Instead, we measured each neighborhood against the city as a whole, using five indicators: household income, home values, poverty, growth or decline in population and, finally, the ratio of homeowners to renters.  

Here is how the city fared in those categories between 2000 and 2009.

Key Indicators JPG.jpg

To starters, we eliminated all the neighborhoods that tracked along the same lines as the city. This was the majority of the neighborhoods, including both Chestnut Hill and Fairhill.  Though one remains wealthy and the other poor, their condition did not change much over the decade. (Go here for an explanation of how we arrived at the list.)

This left two sets of neighborhoods as outliers: those who did much better than the citywide average when it came to homeownership, growth in income, home value and population. There were 10 of these neighborhoods, home to 217,000 people.

The second set were those that fared worst when compared to the city average. There were 10 of these neighborhoods as well, with a total population of 262,000..

This divided the city into three types of neighborhoods: those that grew and prospered the most during the decade, those that remained basically unchanged, and those that faced a lot of stress in the last 10 years.

The two outliers tended to be clustered geographically. The neighborhoods that prospered the most radiated out in a circle from Center City. More about them tomorrow.

On a map, those under stress formed a rough Y that began at Broad Street and Allegheny Avenue in upper North Philadelphia and spread northwest and northeast. (You can view the profiles of these neighborhoods, with data that compares them to the citywide averages.)

Stress Nabes.jpgThere were anomalies, as there always are in Philadelphia, where a few blocks can measure the difference between wealth and poverty, prosperity and decline.

Grays Ferry, the small neighborhood that lies to just south of Center City, came under the greatest stress during the decade, due mostly to a steep decline in household income, an increase in its already high poverty rate, and drops in homeownership and population.  It started the decade poor and got poorer.

A few blocks to the north sits Schuylkill/Southwest Center City -- South of South or SoSo, as it is called. It prospered the most of any neighborhood during the decade, with home values rising 386 percent (compared to the citywide +116%), median household income rising 56 percent (compared to a citywide decline of -7%).  It went from working class to middle class in 10 years.

These trends did not begin on January 1, 2000. Some have been in the making for decades. In the 80's people were talking about imminent revival in SoSo, but it never seemed to happen. Grays Ferry has been losing population since the 1970's.

In the Lower Northeast, demographers predicted changes in the mix and wealth of the population 20 years ago. Neighborhoods such as Oxford Circle, for instance, had a large cohort of residents who settled after World War II, raised their kids and were growing older. (There is even an acronym for such areas -- NORCs, Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities.)

In the late 80's, the concentration of residents aged 65 and older was significant. In the same way they moved into the neighborhood en masse, they started to "age out" of the neighborhood -- die or retire to Florida -- en masse.

As predicted, it caused a huge turnover in population. Oxford Circle has gone from a neighborhood that was Jewish and Catholic middle class to a neighborhood that is younger, poorer and with a high concentration of blacks, Asians and Latinos. (Though homeownership, while it has declined, still is high -- 63 percent.)

This is an example where changes in a neighborhood are not always visible to passersby.

Go to the corner of Oxford Avenue and Alcott Street and it looks as it did 25 years ago. The same blocks of post-World War II rowhouses with miniscule front lawns, a short walk away from St. Martin of Tours Church, the neighborhood parish that faces Roosevelt Boulevard.

Today, though, the corner grocery store is Dominican and St Martin's has Masses in English, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese.

Alcott Street.jpgThe changes are not always so subtle. No one familiar with Frankford over the years can deny the deterioration in the neighborhood: a high-vacancy commercial strip, an increase in abandoned homes. More poverty and much more crime. (Though crime data was not included in this analysis, the police district that includes Frankford now has the highest crime rate in the city.)

The stressed neighborhoods on this list are like the houses on a single block. Some are still solid, but showing cracks in their facades (Cedarbrook, East Mt. Airy. West Oak Lane are examples); others show signs of extensive deterioration (Grays Ferry, Frankford, Tioga-Nicetown and Allegheny West).  The others sit somewhere in between. They could go either way.

Obviously, the recession hit hard in these neighborhoods. (Look at a map of home foreclosures and it would be filled with dots in these same stressed neighborhoods.) Some of these trends could be reversed when we see better economic times.

But there are broader and deeper trends at work as well. These neighborhoods have stalled or declined because of wealth -- or lack thereof.

When it comes to income, the needle is stuck for two large groups of Philadelphians: blacks and Latinos. In 2009, 72 percent of all African-American households and 76 percent of Latino households had incomes under $50,000 a year -- roughly the same proportion as it was 10 years ago.

The stress in many of these 10 neighborhoods is due to the fact that the incomes of many working class and middle class families remained frozen through the decade. By standing still, they fell behind. Inflation diminished the value of their wages; the recession took away their jobs, the banks foreclosed on their homes.

This is not a Philadelphia story, but an American story played out in an urban setting.


Cover Photo: 1500-block of West Erie Ave. 


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